Labor and Slavery (1/2)

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Sally Hemings, a slave at Monticello

Content note: discussion of horrors of US slavery

You don’t have to look for long to find a meme created and shared by white people that equates low-wage or full-time employment with slavery. These messages are disrespectful, ahistoric, and in their hyperbolic melodrama they turn people away from serious consideration of labor rights. We have got to stop making and sharing these simplistic, offensive falsehoods. 

Slavery has existed in various forms throughout history across the globe. The cruelest, most extreme, and widest scale form of slavery in the United States was lifelong race-based chattel slavery. People were kidnapped, chained, beaten, loaded like cargo onto slave ships where most died during the journey, and sold at slave markets like Wall Street. Ripped away from their home, family, culture, and language, they were forced to work in terrible conditions under the constant threat of physical violence, up to and including death.

They and their descendents for generations endured inhumane cruelty at every turn. Long days of hard labor were punctuated by violence. Education was forbidden and learning to read could risk a death sentence. 

Having a family as a slave wasn’t easy. White owners might force “breeding” between slaves of their choosing, an effort at applying animal husbandry principles to enslaved human laborers. Slave marriages weren’t recognized by state or federal government, and husbands and wives might be sold off to other plantations, never to see each other again.

Children were also separated from their parents and siblings. When they arrived in the slave quarters of a new plantation, the black adults would informally “adopt” them and help look out for them. These protective adults came to be called aunties and uncles. Many aunties and uncles were themselves parents of other children who’d been taken.

Sexual assault was common in slavery. Children resulting from the rapes of slave women were legally classed as slaves too, and laws cropped up in slave states delineating just how much black blood made someone a legal non-person. This societal ranking by phenotype persists today.

Thomas Jefferson raped and impregnated his slave “mistress” Sally Hemings at least six times. His children remained his slaves until his death, when they were granted freedom as a stipulation of his will. Many of Jefferson’s white descendents to this day refuse to acknowledge his other line, despite conclusive DNA evidence of shared ancestry.

(Continue to part 2)

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